28 May 2003
In modern China, there are two national “long vacations” a year. On the academic calendar, it conveniently works out to one each semester. The length of each vacation is one week, nominally. In the Fall, it’s in celebration of the founding of the current government (国庆节), and takes place October 1st – 7th. In the Spring, it’s May 1st – 7th, beginning on May Day, the Communist “international working class holiday” (五一). This all seems well and good, but the thing is that these “week-long vacations” are something of a sham, and the Chinese don’t even realize it. (Apparently only the Western mind in its infinite wisdom can see through the treachery. Allow me to explain.)
To elucidate the issue I’ll use the ironic example of this past May Day. (It’s ironic because I, along with many other foreigners and Chinese, did not actually get a May vacation this year due to our friendly neighborhood virus SARS.) Below you will find a partial calendar containing the end of April and the begining of May, 2003. Normally, only weekends are off (these days are indicated in red).
Now, since there is a “week-long” vacation every May (always beginning on the 1st), a Westerner would rationally expect the following (days off again indicated in red):
Imagine the Westerner’s dismay, then, upon learning that in China, the above calendar can exist only in his fantasies. The actual calendar (copied from my school’s 2002-2003 academic calendar, in fact) looks like this:
Inspect it carefully, now. You’ll notice that your Western God-given Sunday, April 27th and Saturday, May 10th rest days have been senselessly revoked. Must be a mistake, right? A misprint for sure. (Clearly, you’re new here.) So you go to a Chinese co-worker or boss-type and inquire about the mysterious missing weekend days. This person nonchalantly replies, “Oh yeah, we have to work those days. Because of the vacation.” Not comprehending such nonsense, you press for clarification. “Well, we have a week of vacation, so we have to make up for it,” the person explains. But that’s a weekend! you reply. We don’t work on weekends! “Yes, but we have a week of vacation, so we have to make it up,” the Chinese person calmly replies, and goes back to work. After having several more carbon copy conversations, the facts are clear. You do have to work that Saturday and Sunday. Somehow those two weekend days are crucial compensation for the 7 days “off.”
I’ve been in China almost three years now, and it wasn’t until this year that I finally understood it. That’s not to say I agree with it, mind you, but I understand it (in much the same way that we can understand the ancient Greeks’ logic behind explaining lightning as Zeus throwing down thunderbolts to smite the naughty). I should tell how my epiphany came about.
At the end of April, a SARS meeting was held at my school. We were informed that we would not get the customary May vacation this year due to SARS. We were also reassured that since we were losing the vacation, we would end the semester early so that we wouldn’t actually be working any extra. OK, so far so good. Well, in planning my forthcoming trip to Australia at the end of this semester, the school questioned my departure date. Wasn’t that a little too early? I had classes, finals, and grades to finish. I smugly reminded them that we got to end a week earlier this semester because we had missed out on our May vacation. The response? But we only end three days early because of that.
Three days early?! Oh yes, I could feel the anger rising. We were promised (by the school president, no less) that the vacation time would be made up at the end of the semester. The explanation that was to follow made no sense to me at the time, but I didn’t really care. I was going to end my semester a week early whether they liked it or not. A few days later I finally got it when my tutor explained it to me in a way that made sense.
It goes like this. The “week off” is not actually completely given. It’s partially a rearrangement of weekend days off. The Communist government, in its benevolence, is only actually giving three days off. (Come on, now, don’t be greedy! You didn’t see Mao taking it easy on the Long March, now, did you?)
What about May 6th and 7th then?
Well, that’s where the creative rearrangement of the “gift” of weekend days off comes in. Those days are pillaged from the surrounding weekends:
Now you can see where the “three day” notion came from. But it still doesn’t really make any sense. There are still so many questions. For example…
> Q. Since the school week is 5 days long, and there are different classes on each day on both teachers’ and students’ schedules, what classes are held on the weekend “make-up days”?
> A. Well, since those work days were originally May 6th and 7th, you can follow the schedule for May 6th and 7th, respectively.
> Q. OK, great. That means out of one week “off,” two days are made up. How about the rest?
> A. Well, those are vacation days.
> Q. So when are they made up?
> A. They aren’t. They’re real vacation days.
> Q. But what if I teach the same class on both Wednesday and Thursday? Then one is made up and the other isn’t?
> A. Correct.
> Q. But then that means one of my classes gets an extra class, and puts those students ahead of the students in the other class. How do I account for that discrepancy?
> A. Well, just don’t teach anything important in the make-up class.
> Q. I don’t teach unimportant things in class! That’s not my job! Why don’t we just cancel the weekend make-up classes, then, if it’s all going to be unimportant content anyway?
> A. No, we can’t do that.
> Q. Why not??
> A. Because we have to make up the days we’re given for the vacation….
You get the idea. It’s pretty infuriating. I usually get out of the weekend classes anyhow. The really ironic part is that even though a “we must work hard” Communist work ethic reason is given for why vacation days need to be made up, the whole reason for the “week off” is purely capitalist. The week off is to encourage travel and spending, pumping big money into China’s tourism industry. That’s not a secret at all. The sad part is that the real workers — food servers, street sweepers, cab drivers, shopkeepers — get no vacation at all. They (or the business they represent) depend upon the revenue that they can earn during the vacation.
So there you have it. Vacation Absurdity. The October vacation works the same way as the May vacation.
That’s China. (But my classes end a whole week early this semester. Just because I’ve been in China for three years doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten what a vacation really is!)